A minister once shared with me the story of how he learned the hard way to be prepared for a disaster. He told me that every night the administrative assistant of the congregation would back up the day’s work, financial records, bulletins, newsletter, and anything else that was done that day. She then put the backup next to the computer on her desk. This worked well until the night a fire destroyed the church office. It took out the computer and the backup. After learning the hard way, the minister made sure they kept another weekly computer backup off-site.
Sadly, it is only after a disaster strikes, no matter what type, that a faith community realizes they should have done something to prepare. Often, if a leader wants to encourage their faith community to prepare they are not sure where to look for resources.
Because of this, Lutheran Disaster Response has prepared a free downloadable Congregational Disaster Preparedness Guidebook. To quote the guidebook, the manual “outlines a step-by-step process for congregations to create their unique preparedness plan.” It also provides information on the long-term recovery process, worship following a disaster, emotional and spiritual care, and links to other resources.
For those looking to start the conversation about preparedness in their faith community, here are five tips Lutheran Disaster Response offers:
Communication is essential in times of disaster. However, it may not always be as simple as a phone call. Power and telephone lines are often down after disasters, causing disruptions in communication. It is important that your faith community has a plan for how to communicate with one another when a disaster strikes. In the first few days following a disaster, there is chaos and misinformation. Having a communication plan in place will help your faith community be aware of what is really happening. While faith communities often have home phone numbers, a list of cell phone numbers is essential. Having the option to send text messages can be valuable following a disaster. It is also helpful to have a “phone tree” where, with just a few calls, community faith leaders can disseminate information quickly. And of course, posting information on the faith community’s website is also a very good way to let folks know the status of the disaster recovery efforts.
Having a written description of how decisions are made is essential to being prepared for a disaster. Having this in place will assist the congregation to move forward in its recovery efforts. On a day-to-day basis, most decisions are made by the minister, a committee or the governing board. However, in a disaster situation, the minister may not be the most experienced to handle the rebuilding efforts. They will be needed to provide spiritual and emotional care, especially if members of the faith community were directly impacted by the disaster. Along with the formal structures of decision making, look to your membership. Is there an insurance agent that can help navigate the process of making a claim? Is there a contractor who can help manage the rebuilding process? It is important to use the gifts in your faith community, especially following a disaster.
Inventory and Insurance
It is important to be aware of the church’s assets, important documents, and insurance coverage long before a disaster strikes. A faith community needs to regularly review its insurance coverage. All too often, people find when they add the cost of the contents to the cost of the building, they are under insured. In order to speed up the claims process, it is recommended to take pictures of the worship space as well as other parts of the building. This is especially important if there are unique items such as statues, carvings or stained glass. Making a video of these items may be easier. Most smart phones have this capability, which makes this process easier.
Any number of emergencies or disasters can happen when the building is in use by the faith community or others. Basically, plans need to be in place to do one of two things: shelter in-place or evacuate.
The next time you are in a hotel or public building, notice how they mark evacuation routes and designated shelters. Basic emergency plans and instructions should be posted prominently near light switches or doorways so that anyone can easily see how to evacuate and where to seek shelter without having to search for someone in charge. Many faith communities also find it helpful to have a map of the facility near entrances to show where the utility shut-offs are located, as this will assist the first responders to know how to secure the building after a disaster.
Congregational Relationships and Involvement
When a disaster occurs, it is important that a community comes together to take care of each other. If the faith community is not directly affected by a disaster, consider joining the community to provide temporary relief and long-term recovery assistance to those impacted. Such opportunities may surface as requests from outside organizations, obvious needs of neighbors, awareness of members of the congregation, etc. Building relationships with disaster response agencies in your area and/or other faith-based organizations before a disaster will help your faith community mount efficient and effective responses addressing the actual needs of your community. Also, having a plan as to how you will respond in coordination with other community partners will allow your faith community to be more efficient in its efforts and insure there is no duplication of services.
These suggestions are by no means exhaustive; but they can help stimulate conversation about what else a faith community can do in order to prepared for a disaster. Remember, a disaster is a matter of when, not if.
The full Lutheran Disaster Response Congregational Disaster Preparedness Guidebook is available at www.ldr.org by clicking the “Resources” button on the right side of the page and then under the General tab. The download is free!
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